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The New Icon
The primary philosophical pillar for Instagram's new icon was an intention to "Honor Instagram’s identity while reflecting its growth."
In the spirit of honoring this heritage, the team first struck off any possibility of retaining anything even remotely resembling the previous icon. Then they set about preventing the use of the recognizable Instagram glyph by Tim van Damme. Their solution: make an icon that requires a lengthy artist's statement to be understood.
Let's dive deeper into the team's rhetoric. For Spalter, the intention behind the rebrand was "Designing a New Look for Instagram, Inspired by the Community." He explained, "the Instagram icon and design was beginning to feel, well…not reflective of the community."
This might be one of the more genius examples of buck-passing in rebrand history. The two-pronged premise goes as follows: first, any complaints about the icon can be taken straight to the greater design community for inspiring the trends that led to their icon. (In some ways, this is an accurate history, if a relinquishing of personal agency.) Second, critics can bring their dissatisfaction to the humble Instagram users themselves. For who else but external designers or Instagram users themselves could be described as "the community?"
According to Spalter, "We started with the basics, removed ornamentation, and flattened the icon." Afterwards, Spalter worried, "these early 'flattening' explorations lacked the visual weight of the original." One has to ask, was he expecting something different?
Thus Spalter would begin a lengthy exercise, asking every employee in the "whole company to draw the logo from memory in 10 seconds or less…That gave us a sense of what was burned in." Looking at the results, they found that the main elements people remembered were the lens, icon shape, and the color stripes.
One might have advised Spalter to ask a single designer to use their two eyes to come to the same conclusion for efficiency's sake, saving the company precious man-hours. But designing the icon by committee was a requirement that had to be satisfied.
The glyph they arrived at was a superellipse with an inner stroke, as well as a "dot and circle [to] evoke a smartphone’s lens and light sensor, rather than a Polaroid camera’s lens and viewfinder."
Spalter explained the team's choice of this simplistic rendering as being due to a "shift [in] how much photography has changed in the past decade or so." The beauty of this statement is it implies that when Systrom and Rise drew their icons, they were entirely ignorant of decade-plus old smartphone hardware that featured a lens sans viewfinder. Imagine if Systrom and Rise, the fools they were, had been aware of smartphones in 2010–they never would have designed an icon that looked like an instant camera.
A Recent History of Gradients
The most discussed element of the Instagram rebrand was its prominent gradient. Many were quick to exclaim 'gradients are back.' Some went so far as declaring a national holiday to mark the occasion, as if gradients had ever gone away–of course they hadn't.
So where exactly did Instagram's particular blurred gradient come from?
Some, like print designer John McHugh, were quick to claim, "This is what happens when interface designers do branding. Soulless." One might not have expected this proposition from McHugh, given that he has produced work in much the same aesthetic. Moreover, it would only make sense to for McHugh to align himself with the gradients of such an established company as Instagram.
The problem with McHugh's position is that it's entirely ahistorical. If we look to the origins of the tie-dye gradient aesthetic, it didn't emerge from the interface designers in Apple's Human Interface Group, as McHugh alluded to. While it is true that historical HIG principles held that gradients be used to convey a consistent light source, these new decorative gradients were of a new breed.
It was in fact the print and brand designers in Apple's Marketing Communications group who introduced and enforced the new non-functional gradient aesthetic when they laid the groundwork for iOS 7, with its blurred, 'frosted glass' vibrancy and its neon gradient color palette.
You can surely hold UI designers responsible for at first passively, and later enthusiastically embracing the garish neon gradient aesthetic, but they did not initiate the trend. Nevertheless, there is one thread that ties much here together. According to Mashable, interface designer Robert Padbury was the "architect" behind the Instagram icon and had also designed for Apple's iOS 7 and Uber's February redesign.
When Apple announced at WWDC 2015 their new Apple Music and iTunes branding, they introduced a tie dye style that shocked many, despite having already been used in OS branding for some time.
The Verge stretched to justify the seemingly nonsensical blurred shapes as an homage to the original striped Apple logo. Another theory some posited was that the colors were a mashup of the Music, Podcasts and Videos apps.
At the time, I responded to the logic, "This icon only makes sense if you think icon design is making a mush of colors that signify nothing to the audience." And as it turned out, the prevailing mashup theory didn't pan out. The Videos and Podcasts apps were not ultimately integrated into the mobile Music app.
Despite the vibrancy blur turning out to be a seemingly random choice in Apple's case, Instagram would go on to justify its use of the blur in their own icon using the same sort of spurious arguments volunteered by Apple apologists.
Referring to the ten-second icon drawing exercise, Spalter recalled,
We turned our focus to figuring out exactly what people loved about the classic icon…we knew that people loved the rainbow…Almost all of them drew the rainbow…If the lens is a bridge into the bolder, simpler glyph, the rainbow is a bridge into the colorful gradient."
It therefore made sense to make any connection to that rainbow entirely imperceptible, if it would exist at all.
Interestingly enough, consider what happens if you stretch their sampling justification to its extreme. When you sample colors from the old icon even from odd places like the lens or viewfinder, you still don't find the same color palette used in both icons. Many of the blurred colors now being used did not occur at all in the old icon. And of those colors that do, only a fraction are from the stripes that users so associate with the Instagram brand.
These colors are not in any way "an echo of perhaps the most beloved part of the old Instagram logo." Nor is it true as Spalter claims that "The rainbow lives on in form of this new gradient." It is clear there was little to no intentionality at all in the icon's palette, other than to offset the reductive minimalism in the app's design.
But before we cast any judgment, we must also consider the argument made by Chappell Ellison, "You know who loves gradients, and decorative text and bright colors? Literally billions of people."
If you put it that way, it isn't so important whether the colors were really sampled from the old icon or whether they're an incoherent mess. The narrative convinced the design community, so that is really all that matters.
Black and White UI
When it became clear that users were revolted by the new icon, apologists had to reconcile this with their own disgust with the art of icon design. How could users possibly prioritize an icon? Doesn't everyone by now know that icons are insignificant drivel? Did iOS 7 not get that through the consumer's heads?
This sentiment was best put by Jared Spool: "At the end of the day, it isn’t the logo that makes or breaks the product or company. It’s the experience the company delivers." In this way, apologists sought to appeal to the broader systems design in the UI, as though it could serve to excuse and invalidate all aesthetic criticism of the icon.
This paradoxically emerged as its own aesthetic argument, in which industry leaders like Nicholas Felton lauded the minimalist black and white color scheme: "When you use color sparingly, it becomes a tool." The corollary we must assume is that if one uses color liberally, they're doing a disservice to users, who will have little clue as to what colors might mean.
It was strange that places like The Verge and Gizmodo praised the new black and white UI in the most recent version of Instagram, as if it were an utterly new revision to the app's design. If we look to Instagram's recent history, the current iteration of their design is perfectly in line with the philosophy outlined in their iOS 7 UI update in 2013.
On the release of their iOS 7 UI, the team's intentions were made clear:
Today we launched Instagram for iOS 7! You'll see a lot less chrome, full bleed images, more whitespace…We focused on putting the content even more to the forefront than before.
In the rationale for their 2016 interface adjustment, Spalter outlined the content-first approach:
While the icon is a colorful doorway into the Instagram app, once inside the app, we believe the color should come directly from the community’s photos and videos. We stripped the color and noise from surfaces where people’s content should take center stage…We’ve also refreshed the user interface with a simpler, more consistent design that helps people’s photos and videos shine.
One can be forgiven for not noticing the massive ocular burden of the previous overly colorful UI which prevented any photography from being enjoyed.
It should now be clear the significance of Instagram's change from a dimensional icon to a flat one. This transition served as the final nail in the coffin of a larger paradigm that had existed for decades: an understanding of the value of overt skeuomorphic design.
The resultant Instagram brand speaks to an indecisiveness on the part of its designers. The tie dye gradient colors of the icon and the minimalist palette in the app interface represent the worst of both worlds. In the former, a sort of postmodern nihilism in which 'anything goes.' In the latter, a modernist reduction such that judgment is never a factor. It is a case study in the sickness that is contemporary design.